Rewind: Designing Meeples with Daniel Solis

Rewind: Designing Meeples with Daniel Solis

March 18, 2015 1 By Ryan Sanders

In this edition of Designing Meeples we speak with designer, Daniel Solis. We speak on keeping things simple in your design, card layout and using print on demand services to self-publish.

Daniel Solis is the designer behind Belle of the Ball published by Dice Hate Me Games, he also have quite a few through his own label that uses DriveThruCards – Smart Play Games. Daniel was asked this year to be a guest speaker at Unpub 5 .

To start us off, Daniel, could you introduce yourself and share what got you into tabletop gaming?

Daniel: I’m Daniel Solis, formerly a creative director at an ad agency, now a graphic designer and art director in tabletop games. I design my own card games under the Smart Play Games label, which are available at SmartPlayGames.com, printed by DriveThruCards.

I played a lot of games as a kid, but my first board games as an adult were Pente, Carcassonne, and ZOMBIES!!! I was also sort of involved with the early 2000s indie RPG community, eventually designing two storytelling games for families: Happy Birthday, Robot! and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

Why did you start to design games? After you finished first your game, why did you continue designing them?

 Daniel: I probably started seriously exploring game design when I first played Pente and wanted to get more than 2 players involved. I built up an entirely too large collection of glass beads in that effort.

I had a lot of half-finished or barely-started games after that, but never seriously pursued commercial publishing because I didn’t feel I was ready yet. The advent of crowdfunding helped nudge me to publish Happy Birthday Robot in 2010. After that, I was hooked! It’s a great feeling seeing people enjoy your game. Who wouldn’t want that?

What are some games that you think someone interesting in designing a game should try out or investigate in order to get a well rounded understanding of game types or mechanics?

Daniel: Oh gosh, you want the canon of board games, eh? I’m honestly not sure I’m qualified to make broad recommendations since I have such a narrow focus on card games the past few years.

If it were me, I wish I’d started with very simple games like Skull to show how to create a game with as few components as possible that is still a hoot to play. There’s a habit of new game designers to just add a ton of cruft to fix a flawed system. A small, elegant game allows none of that, which is a great lesson in design.
Also research some folk card games that you can play with a standard deck of playing cards: Hearts, Scopa, Poker. Find a copy of Sid Sackson’s Card Games Around the World for a small sample of what folk card games can do. If you can find a hanafuda deck, I also recommend learning some Japanese card games like Koi-Koi. The big lesson I took from these old games is actually how to write rules. These jargon-filled rules documents give any designer a good sense of what it’s like when newcomers approach a tabletop game for the first time.

Otherwise, my recommendation would be to seek out games that use cards as a primary component but which otherwise have wildly different gameplay and presentation: No Thanks, Sushi Go, Chronicle, Jaipur, Love Letter, For Sale, Smash Up, Tichu, Guillotine. I also recommend at least two different deckbuilding games: Dominion as a starter, but Ascension and Valley of the Kings are great fun. Lastly, at least two different CCG: Magic is the obvious choice, but Kaijudo or the Hearthstone app are cheaper to pick up.

You have designed many games with many different mechanics. Why do you think it is important, as a designer, to try new mechanics when designing games, instead of being known for one or two mechanic types?

Daniel: Believe me, I’d love to be known for designing a hot new groundbreaking game mechanic, but I don’t work that way. I’d never get anything done. Getting things *done* is what really drives me.

The longer a project takes, the more likely I’ll make ridiculous unproductive changes to it for no particular reason. I like working with different established mechanisms because I know they’re pretty stable when I start, so it saves me a lot of time.

If I do explore a new mechanism, it’s always something related to the physical nature of my components. Most recently, that’s cards. They’re a uniquely versatile physical object. Stackable, shiftable, foldable, double-sided, four-edged… So yeah, I’m most inclined to work with an established mechanic, but if I try anything new it should be something physically interesting.

When you are designing games, do you work on just one game at a time, or do you split your focus on multiple games? If you do design multiple games at a time, how do you prioritize which projects to work on when multiple ones are tugging on your thoughts?

Daniel: Last year, I really focused on finishing the game that is closest to being finished and then moving on to the next one. Now my schedule isn’t so packed but I still try to focus on the small achievable goals.

If you are in the middle of a design and you are suddenly hit with an acute case of “designer block” – what do you typically do?

Daniel: Usually there’s some other aspect of the project I can do until it’s time for the next playtest. I really try not to design in a vacuum too much because I can get really lost in my own head. Getting real actual table time is the best source of design direction for me.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received about game design?

Daniel: Start small. Smaller. No, smaller. Keep going.

Ten Pen, a game you designed, uses cards in a nontraditional way – you actually lay them off the edge of the table and tap them to slide them across the table. What gave you this idea?

Daniel: I was working on a game where you cut a deck of cards and lay the two decks adjacent to each other. Then you can cut one of those decks and repeat the process, gradually shrinking these decks and expanding their space laterally. Unfortunately, the cards I was using tended to slide a lot. I couldn’t keep the decks straight.

I decided to turn that bug into a feature, using those slippery cards as a dexterity game. It got me thinking about what themes it might fit and cute penguins sliding on an iceberg seemed to be pretty fun. It all came together after that.

Another example of out-of-the box thinking is your game, Kigi, where you lay cards on a table to paint a mural. Do you have any tips for designers on how to look outside the box when trying to come up mechanics or even reinventing a way we, as gamers, look at a certain mechanic?

Daniel: Kigi was very much inspired by the organic play style of String Railway and Paperclip Railway. I just wanted to see if that’s something I could do with cards. So my advice would be to take a mechanic you like in one game and explore how you would do something like that with a completely different component. For example, Quarriors, took the deckbuilding mechanic, decoupled it from the card component, and added dice instead.

Do you have any advice on how to design unique games while at the same time keeping them simple and not making them overcomplicated?

Daniel: The game you’re working on is not the last game you’ll ever work on. There’s an impulse to make the current project contain every clever idea you have, but really I think you can get by with just one or two. Focus on those ideas, elaborate on them, explore their emergent complexity, codify those edge cases you discovered from hundreds of playtests. After that, you can make the rest of the game approachable and familiar.

The game you’re working on is not the last game you’ll ever work on. There’s an impulse to make the current project contain every clever idea you have, but really I think you can get by with just one or two. Focus on those ideas, elaborate on them, explore their emergent complexity, codify those edge cases you discovered from hundreds of playtests. After that, you can make the rest of the game approachable and familiar.

When you talk about elegant games or game design – what do you mean?

Koi Pond card

Daniel: Smarter people than me have talked about this at length, but these days I prefer the term “eloquent” over “elegant.” The past few years, “elegant” has become synonymous with “minimalist,” but that is not always the case.

Elegance is simply a ratio of the complexity at the start of the game to its complexity in the middle-to-late game. A game can have a relatively high learning curve, but if it opens up into a constellation of even more interesting choices, then it’s still elegant. A game can have a very shallow learning curve, but not open up at all, so it’s not elegant.

Meanwhile, I like “eloquence” because it implies you’re choosing a game mechanism not because you fetishize a particular design aesthetic, but because it is the right mechanism for the job.

How do you, as a game designer, keep your games simple, but still fun without adding too much complexity to the game or rules?

Daniel: It helps that my products have to keep the rules contained within the space of several 2.5” x 3.5” cards. If I can’t clearly communicate a step of play on one side of a card, and give an illustrated example on the other side, then I need to simplify it. The front of a card has room for about 200 words, so that’s my limit.

What, in your mind, makes a great rulebook and what suggestions do you have for writing rules for any designers out there that struggles with it?

Daniel: Work with an editor and a graphic designer to really get your text and images coherent. Being a great game designer does not necessarily mean you’re a great game teacher, so bringing those fresh eyes can help significantly.

As noted above, I’d also recommend starting small, write each step of play in a very tight word count. Outline your whole document as a bulleted list, flesh out each bullet within those word counts. Keep your sentences simple. Explain one idea at a time.

On your blog, you talk a lot about layout. Could you share some tips on how to properly layout prototype (or final version) cards to? What should we be keeping in mind?

Daniel: This is a big question! I’m actually covering a lot of this subject in a presentation for Unpub 5, which I hope will be recorded on video. Generally, for a prototype, your goal is feedback on the game. But people are visual creatures and you’ll get just as many comments on presentation as you will the actual gameplay. The three things to keep in mind for a prototype are clarity for the player, ease of iteration, and an accurate sense of completeness.

On the first point, clarity for the player means having clear text that is easy to read at the expected distance. It also means using visual cues like icons, placeholder art, or colors to make learning and playing the game as easy as possible. Finally, it means using components that fit your gameplay well. With all these things, hopefully players will slide easily down your learning curve and give you constructive feedback on the game itself.

On the second point, I iterate my games very rapidly so I’ve learned some techniques to make that process as simple as possible. Using black and white graphics with minimal ink coverage makes a prototype much more affordable for playtesters to print or re-print. The DataMerge feature in InDesign lets me take a spreadsheet and rapidly export a fully designed deck of cards in minutes.

Third, you never want your prototype to look more finished than your game. My years in graphic design business really urge me to make a game look 100% polished, but I learned that this leads to unfair expectations. The feedback I get for a good-looking but unfinished game is less constructive because playtesters assume the process is too far-gone for fundamental changes to the game. That is not the impression you want to give if your game is going to improve.

What are some games with excellent card layout that designers should take note of?

Daniel: I really admire cards in Jaipur. Each card represents one good, but they didn’t use icons or numbers on the cards. It’s just lovely art that you can nonetheless recognize as distinct cards when you fan them in your hand.

I also like the cards in the just-released game Fidelitas. It’s always nice when the graphic design around the card integrates seamlessly with great art. Makes the whole package feel much more cohesive.

Oh! And I dig how more games like SmashUp and King of Tokyo are integrating the type into the art. In SmashUp, the big giant numbers stand in the middle-ground with some foreground elements sitting in front. It’s awesome.

 What are some of your favorite things to always have around the house to use for prototyping?

Daniel: My main tools are a metal straight edge ruler, a cutting board, an x-acto knife, plenty of penny sleeves, lots of plain paper, lots of dollar store playing card decks, lots of binder clips to keep sheets straight while I cut them. I line up a big stack of sheets, clip them together, then use a straight edge and x-acto blade to cut through the stack manually. Others use rotary cutters or guillotine cutters, but I learned this old-fashioned way and I’ve become very efficient with it.

When you are in the playtesting phase of a game, what are some things you specifically ask your playtesters?

Daniel: There is a phase of playtesting where I’m playing with the group mainly to see how the various systems interact. Later, I let two or more players play the game with me answering questions but not playing along with them. In both phases, I once peppered playtesters with all sorts of questions during and after a playtest.

Now, I just watch out for frequently asked questions from the playtesters. Usually that indicates some extra bit of complexity or vagueness that needs to be adjusted. I noticed that if my answer to a frequently asked question is “no,” that means it should probably be “yes.” In other words, if some element of the game intuitively suggests a particular action ought to be allowed then I usually ought to revise my design rather than fight instinct.


Now, I just watch out for frequently asked questions from the playtesters. Usually that indicates some extra bit of complexity or vagueness that needs to be adjusted. I noticed that if my answer to a frequently asked question is “no,” that means it should probably be “yes.” In other words, if some element of the game intuitively suggests a particular action ought to be allowed then I usually ought to revise my design rather than fight instinct.

While you have been published by Dice Hate Me Games, you release most of your games through DriveThruCards – a POD (Print On Demand) service. Why is POD right for you versus pitching games to traditional publishers?

Daniel: I don’t see the two models being mutually exclusive. In fact, I think POD can be a really fruitful proving ground for card games in particular. Several of my POD games have gone on to be licensed, translated, and published by traditional publishers in Brazil, China, and Japan. More publishers in other languages are looking for candidates in POD as well. It’s a great model for a designer with a few dozen card games under their belt.

From POD, publishers get to see a finished game from an enthusiastic, self-motivated designer. The POD process also leaves a clear record of sales to see the game’s potential in a wider retail market. POD can’t reach out to storefronts or mass distribution, but I think soon we will see more POD games “graduate.” My dream would be seeing a major award-winner with its roots in the POD market.

As for pitching, I still do it at times and there’s really no better way to sell licenses for your games than meeting a publisher face-to-face. But I have a very limited travel budget and enough production experience that releasing POD games on my own, then using their sales performance as proof of concept, was a more worthwhile method of pitching long-distance.

Monsoon Market Goods cards

When you design for POD, do you keep in mind the exact count of a sheet of cards? And if so, how does that affect your game design?

Daniel: In my more recent designs, I definitely try to not go over 54 cards. Sheets aren’t as much of an issue as in traditional printing, though. 54 cards just turns out to be the ideal card count for a reasonably priced POD product to earn a profit. However, now that I’m selling licenses to international publishers, I do want to make sure my products can transition to traditional publishing as easily as possible. That means restricting my card counts to multiples of 9 or 18.

What general rule of the thumb do you go by, when you know that the playtesting phase is over for one of your designs and it is ready to be published on POD?

Daniel: When I can get a new group of players to successfully play the game multiple times without my direct input, that’s a really good sign it’s ready for prime time. A big part of the later stage process is then writing the rules, laying out diagrams, and making sure that is as clear as possible. After those rules have passed through multiple rounds of editing and proofing, I’m comfortable launching a new product.

Your main focus is card games – let me ask you, what makes a good card game?

Daniel: Oh gosh. Honestly, cards are just a component. The fact that particular genres or mechanisms are often correlated with that component is just an artifact of tradition. So mechanisms like trick-taking are most often seen in card games, but you could just as easily work that mechanism into tiles or even dice. The cards are just an object.

So, my perspective on what makes a “good” card game is more about the production side of things than as a game designer. Cards do have some ergonomic issues that must be addressed if they’re going to be playable. They must typically be legible from a distance, readable while fanned in a hand, easily referenced despite being upside-down, and so on. That stuff is just the basics before you even get to the actual game itself.

Before we wrap up – we asked for questions on twitter and we received a couple that we would like to ask you. The first is from Suzanne (@425suzanne ), she asked if you could share some “tips on how to effectively provide feedback to designers (both game & graphic.).”

Daniel: It’s very common for playtesters to offer suggestions for how to change a game or to add certain mechanisms. That is the easiest kind of feedback to give and very much our natural instinct. The more useful feedback would be to look a little deeper and simply state the problem the playtester is trying to solve. Suggested fixes are certainly welcome, but they’re very often contradictory.

Instead of “Here’s what you should add” or “Here’s what you should change,” it’s something more like “Here’s how I felt during the game” or “Here’s a problem I spotted.” That framing is a little less prone to idiosyncratic game experiences.

Daneil Solis’ Light Rail

 Next we have Todd (@ToddKauk ) and he points out that most of your games seem to emphasize or value art and aesthetics. He would like to know if that is that an important design goal for you?

Daniel: Now that I’m selling more games to international publishers, making games as language neutral as possible is a strong goal. That means the art really needs to pop and appeal to general audiences.

I like making products that advertise themselves when they’re on the table. You know how people snap pictures of pretty food? I want players to do that to my games, too. Social media really helps drive traffic to my products, so any little boost like that really helps.

  Our final Twitter question comes from Daniel (@danielskjoldp) who notes that you have been slowing down your output lately and wants to know if “you find it easier/harder to select the games to develop into finished games?”

  Daniel: Last year was a whirlwind. I had about a dozen products that were in 80-90% state of completion that I intensively developed and released over the course of twelve months. Now I’ve run through that backlog so I’m ready to be a little more selective with how I direct my energies. It’s a relief not to stick to that brutal schedule anymore, but it also makes me nervous because a regular release schedule really helps sell older product, too. This year will certainly be interesting!

You are currently working on a game called A La Kart – it looks like Mario Kart and Sugar Rush (from the movie “Wreck It Ralph”) combined in card game form.  What can you tell us about this game and when we can expect it to be released?

Daniel: Each player is a driver in a madcap food-themed racing circuit called A La Kart. Each player has their own deck of cards with unique abilities tailored to particular play styles. The whole game is full of puns, so expect some groans.

My plan for the game is to release it as two-player sets that can be combined for up to six players’ worth of racing action. Sugar vs. Spice at Sundae Speedway, Fish vs. Chips at the Autobun, and Mac vs. Cheese at the Marinara Trench.

I just debuted it to the general public at Unpub 5 and got some great feedback. Once I’ve made some further tweaks, I’ll be ready to send out beta copies to outside playtesters. That will be very exciting!

As we say goodbye, is there anything else you would like to add?

Daniel: Thanks for having me! Look for more of my games at http://www.smartplaygames.com

Thanks Daniel, for taking the time out to sharing with us some of your thoughts on designs.

What’s that you say? Inquiring meeples want to know more?

You may want to check out these links:

• Daniel Solis’ Blog

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